In an age defined by men, it will take something extraordinary to show four women who they truly are . . .
October 1840. A young woman staggers alone through a forest in Shropshire as a huge pair of impossible wings rip themselves from her shoulders.
Meanwhile, when rumours of a ‘fallen angel’ cause a frenzy across London, a surgeon desperate for fame and fortune finds himself in the grips of a dangerous obsession, one that will place the women he seeks in the most terrible danger . . .
THE GIFTS is the astonishing debut adult novel from the lauded author of BEARMOUTH. A gripping and ambitious book told through five different perspectives and set against the luminous backdrop of nineteenth century London, it explores science, nature and religion, enlightenment, the role of women in society and the dark danger of ambition.
My thoughts: bits of this book reminded me of Skellig, David Almond’s extraordinary book, but this is far darker, more complex and with large themes and ideas. Women sprouting wings, three in this story, although only two live, perhaps, as Natalya suggests because of the wildness within in them, the fact that they are rejected by society – she for her baby born out of wedlock, Etta for her skin colour and illegitimacy, and then Mary – who does not grow physical wings but does spread her metaphorical ones and fights to save the pair trapped in a terrible place.
I have often been glad that, as much as I like learning about history, that I live in an age of relative freedom for women. That I have far more rights than many who came before me. Women like Natalya, Etta and Mary. Women like Annie and Sarah too. Where society dictates their roles, and gives them rules and even clothing that imprisons and controls them, forcing them to conform or else be outcast and alone.
There is also a loss of religious faith here – Etta, Natalya and Mary have all pretty much given up on church and God. Each of them have been broken by cruel twists of fate and survival becomes much more important than prayer. Edward is the one who prays, but the church he attends is much more about appearances and as he descends into his delusions and cruelty, his faith too starts to warp and suffer. Faith does not offer comfort or support here, just cold blank faced stone.
While the fantastical elements of the story are wonderful, it is the more humdrum stuff and the kindness of others that matters. Jos and George’s kindness in taking in their niece Mary, hers in turn towards Charlie. Those human connections that make us who we are, Mary wants to help Etta and Natalya, not just for the story, but because she is good and kind. She is determined to improve her own situation, but also that of these other women, women she does not even know, and in doing so also helps Annie and Sarah too – the Meakes’ house is no longer a safe place for women – not even for the dog locked in the basement too (also female). A striking, moving story of women and strength.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own